Providers and advocates for the homeless from across Minnesota spoke out Thursday, urging the governor and Legislature not to forget them when taking emergency action to combat COVID-19.

“We need more support, and we need more resources, and we need them now,” said Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in a teleconference.

Safe distancing and social isolation is “very difficult if not impossible to achieve in our shelters,” he said.

Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, which housed 100 people overnight Wednesday in Duluth, said, “If there’s an infection in shelters, it’s going to go like wildfire.”

Monica Nilsson, the director of Elim Church and Strong Tower parish shelters in Northeast Minneapolis, explained why in graphic terms as she described those who stayed in the men’s shelter the night before.

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“Curt is an Army Ranger who vomits in his bucket next to his mat on the floor while he goes through chemotherapy,” Nilsson said. “Paul is next to him, and he works at a grocery store. Kurt, who’s next to him, has terrible pneumonia, and he’s keeping everybody awake because he’s coughing all night.”

Public health advice about staying at home “is simply adding insult to injury for folks in our community who are experiencing homelessness,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis.

To meet the special needs of the homeless in the face of a pandemic, the advocates called for:

  • Providers for the homeless to be included as recipients of money from the $200 million for health care relief the Legislature appropriated to fight COVID-19.

  • Significant additional COVID-19 relief funding, with homeless providers included.

  • A coordinated response from the state to reflect “the risk and urgency of homelessness services.”

  • Additional support from the private sector as shelters face millions of dollars of added costs during the crisis.

Marx called on Gov. Tim Walz to respond to the need.

“We need increased leadership from the Walz administration, and others, because we need access to hotels, to try to get elderly people out of our shelters, and to provide them a safe environment,” Marx said. “We need to think of strategies to get people out of encampments into safe and decent facilities. We need access to arenas and other places where meals can be served in a healthy way with appropriate social distancing.”

Several of the speakers cited data from the Wilder Foundation 2018 Minnesota Homeless Study, which was released Wednesday.

According to the study, 19,600 Minnesotans experienced homelessness on any given night that year, and a total of 50,600 experienced it at some time during the year.

It also found that 57% of homeless Minnesotans have a chronic physical health condition, 64% have a serious mental illness and 24% have substance use disorder. Half have two or more of those conditions.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. (March 26) with additional information from sources. It was originally posted at 4:27 p.m.

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